Bread for the Pharaoh — by Jason
[Note to Readers: this excerpt is related to the book in the Long Tale Press bookstore by the same title, to give buyers a taste for the story. You are welcome to review it in the normal way, but as this title is already published, those reviews will not affect the status of this excerpt in any way.]
Nasu stood, peering into the bakery’s large oven at the loaves of bread. He reached inside and tapped one of the loaves experimentally with his fingernail. After so many years working in the bakery, he hardly noticed the heat of the oven on his hand. The loaf made a hollow sound when he tapped it, but to his experienced ear the sound was not quite hollow enough. He tapped a few more loaves with the same result.
“Not quite done,” he muttered to himself. He walked to the doorway of the bakery and stood for a few moments, enjoying the cool morning air. The bakery door opened to the west, and behind him to the east the sun was rising. In the early morning light Nasu could see the long shadow of Pharaoh Khufu’s great pyramid stretching out on the desert floor. Workers walked along past the bakery, chatting in groups of twos and threes as they made their way to work.
Nasu wondered briefly which of the men were headed for Pharaoh Khafre’s pyramid and which ones were headed for the statue. Khafre’s pyramid grew slowly from the desert floor under the labors of thousands of men. It was still dwarfed by the great pyramid of his father, the Pharaoh Khufu, which had been completed many years before. Nasu recalled a vague memory from when he was a small boy of the celebrations that had taken place when Khufu’s pyramid was finally finished.
The statue was the Sphinx, but most people called it simply “the statue.” It was still being carved from the lump of rock that stuck up out of the desert floor some ways to the east of Khafre’s pyramid. Nasu wondered what it would look like when it was finished.
Nearly twelve years had passed since Pharaoh Khafre had ordered that the statue be built. Nasu could always remember how long, because his own son had been born just a few months before that. His son’s name was Sanakht, although just about everyone called him San. San had just turned twelve years old a few days ago. Nasu smiled at the memory of his son’s birthday and at the thought that soon, he would be old enough to start helping in the bakery. Nasu looked forward to teaching Sanakht his craft. But not today.
When he judged the time was right, Nasu returned to the oven to remove the bread. He used a thin wooden paddle with a long handle to scoop the loaves off of the flat stones on the floor of the oven. He took the loaves out one by one, placing them in neat rows in a wide, shallow basket. The loaves only half-filled the large basket.
Nasu put a bit more wood into the oven, stoked up the fire, and began to place the next batch of loaves onto the hot stones. This he did by hand instead of using the paddle. Sometimes the uncooked loaves would stick to the wooden paddle, which made it hard to space the loaves out correctly in the oven. Spacing the loaves correctly was important, because without enough space between each loaf they would not cook evenly. Nasu found that it was easier and faster to simply endure the heat and place the uncooked loaves into the oven by hand.
When the second batch of bread had finished baking, the sun was well up and the morning was already growing hot. Through a doorway at the back of the bakery was the house where Nasu and his family lived. Nasu called for his son.
“San,” he shouted, “bread is ready!” A minute passed, but there was no reply. “Sanakht!” he shouted again, walking into the house. Where was he?
When he entered house, San’s younger sister Djera said “He’s not here, papa. I think he went to play.”
“Well, be a good girl and go find him. Bread is ready.”
“Yes, Papa,” said Djera, as she ran out of the house to find her older brother.
She ran down the row of simple huts, the living quarters for the workers, checking first in the places she usually found him. San had many friends among the boys whose fathers worked on the statue, and again she found him with one of them. San and the other boy were throwing small stones out into the desert, to see who could throw the farthest.
“San!” she exclaimed, “The bread is ready. Papa sent me to find you.”
San threw one more stone. “I have to go,” he said to his friend. “I’ll see you later, Jelal.”
“Sure, maybe tomorrow,” Jelal said. San took his sister’s hand as they walked back to the bakery.
“You should not go out in the mornings,” Djera told him. “Papa likes for you to be there when the bread is done.”
“I get bored waiting for it to bake,” San said. “Besides, we’ll be right back.”
When they reached the bakery, San went inside while his sister went back to the house.
“There you are, Sanakht,” his father said, gruffly. “Well, quickly now. Make your rounds. You’re going to be late!”
“Yes, Father,” said San. He hurried to pick up the basket of bread before his father could reprimand him further. The basket was large and circular, with handles woven into each side. Full of bread, the shallow basket was very heavy and San strained to lift it. But he managed, and set out on his delivery.
It was the same every morning. His father baked the bread and San delivered it, carrying it down the long dusty road to the Temple of Ra. The temple stood just to the east of where the workers were carving the great statue. San would deliver the bread and then head back home, because in the afternoon there would be another basket of bread to deliver. The second basket was for the workers at the statue.
San started off, blinking against the sun which was only just rising over the low base of Khafre’s pyramid. The unfinished pyramid was taller now than it used to be. San remembered back to the previous year, when he had first started delivering the bread for his father, that the sun would already be well above the new pyramid when he set out in the mornings. But now the pyramid was higher and the morning sun had to work harder to rise over it. It would be many years yet before the pyramid was completed. By then, San thought, he would be baking the bread and perhaps his own son would be delivering it.
The road turned east, and wound through a market on its way down to the temple and the worksite of the statue. The market was busy, as always, with people buying and selling salted fish, dried figs and dates, olives, cloth, sandals, and everything else one might need.
“Hey, boy,” a man called out. He looked like a worker, and was traveling the same way down the road as San. “How much for a loaf?”
People often tried to buy the bread from San as he passed through the market. But he was not allowed to sell this bread. It was the temple bread, in the special triangular loves, baked with dates, spices, and honey. Sometimes, after delivering the regular bread to the workers at the statue, there would be one or two loaves left over. San was allowed to sell those in the market, as he made his way back home. But he was never allowed to sell the temple bread.
“Sorry, it’s not for sale,” San replied. The man looked disappointed as San hurried on, his arms tiring from holding the basket. There was no breeze that morning to keep him cool and San began to sweat from carrying his heavy load.
At last, the temple came into view. San hurried to the entrance where he always made his deliveries. He stepped inside, looking for Qamakha, one of the priests at the temple. Qamakha oversaw the temple’s kitchen, and was always there when San made his deliveries.
But today was different. Today, when San entered the temple, a man said “You, boy, what are you doing here?”
San looked briefly at him. The man did not look familiar, which was unusual because by now San thought he knew everyone at the temple. Not all of them by name, but he at least recognized the priests and their acolytes by sight. Whoever this man was, he seemed to be important, so San figured it would be best to answer the man in as polite a manner as he could.
“Your Excellency,” he began, not sure the proper form of address for this person. The man was dressed in a very high manner, with a very clean, white loincloth around his waist, and a fancy headdress that seemed to be edged with gold. San could not tell if the man was a priest or perhaps a nobleman. Hoping that his greeting was acceptable, San finished answering the man’s question. “I am delivering pesen,” San explained, using the word for the special temple bread. “My father bakes bread for this temple and every morning I deliver it.”
The man narrowed his eyes, peering down at San, appraising him as though trying to determine whether San were telling the truth. San wished the man would let him go, for the basket was getting very heavy, and his arms were aching now. Hoping to hurry things along, San asked “Where is Qamakha? He always receives the bread from me.”
The man’s lip curled into a slight sneer. “He has been given—” the man paused for a moment, as if searching for the right way to answer, “—other duties.” The man smiled, but it was not a very good smile and it did not make San feel any more comfortable. Even though he was inside now, out of the sun, San was sweating more under the man’s gaze.
“Oh, I see,” San replied, swallowing nervously. What would he tell his father if he wasn’t allowed to leave the bread? How would he even get the bread back home? His arms needed a rest, and he didn’t think he would be able to carry the heavy basket all the way home.
At last, the man decided “Very well. Leave it here and be on your way!”
This was all very unusual, and San didn’t know what to make of it. “But,” he stammered, “I usually take the bread to the kitchen. I need to bring the basket back with me.”
“Leave it and be gone!” the man ordered, pointing to the ground at San’s feet. San put the basket down quickly and ran out as fast as he could.
But as he turned to go, he caught a glimpse of someone else in the temple who he had never seen before: a girl, peeking from behind a stone column. San wanted to take a closer look, but in his haste to get away from the strange man in the fancy clothes, a glimpse of her was all he got.
San ran back to the bakery as fast as he could. His mind was racing nearly as fast as his feet. Who was the strange man? Who was the girl? What would he tell his father about the basket? He dodged right and left as he ran through the market, avoiding carts, vendors’ stalls and people carrying goods they had bought or were selling. When he reached the bakery his heart was pounding and he was gasping for breath.
He stopped and leaned against the frame of the doorway for support. “Father!” he exclaimed, catching Nasu’s attention. But then he could only stand there, panting, trying to catch his breath before he could say anything else.
“Sanakht!” his father exclaimed. “What is the matter?” Nasu crossed to the doorway in three quick strides and knelt down beside his son. He took him by the shoulders. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Where is the basket?”
San breathed heavily for several long moments before he could speak again. His legs were burning from running so fast and he slid down the door frame to sit on the ground while he talked.
“There was a strange man at the temple,” he began. “He wouldn’t let me go to the kitchen. He made me leave the basket.” San explained about the man’s fancy clothes and his unkind manner, that Qamakha was nowhere to be seen, and how the man had frightened him. He was about to mention the girl he had glimpsed on his way out of the temple but then stopped himself. He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason he decided not to tell his father about her.
When San was finished, his father said “Well, you will have to go back and get the basket. I cannot afford to buy another one.”
“Yes, Father.” San swallowed hard. Of course he would have to retrieve the basket. There was no getting around that, but he dreaded the thought of facing that man again.
“Get your breath back, then hurry and fetch it. You will need it for this afternoon.” Nasu stood and returned to his work.
The first batch of loaves for the afternoon’s delivery to the workers at the statue was already formed and was waiting to be placed in the oven. Still, there was plenty of time to get the basket back and return before the second batch was baked so he would not be late for the delivery. That was good, because he did not want to be late, almost as much as he did not want to face the strange man at the temple again. San remembered once when he had been late for the afternoon delivery. When he had finally arrived, the workers had been both very hungry and very cross with him.
San got up as soon as he was rested and walked quickly back to the temple, thinking about what he would do when he got there. He considered waiting around to make sure the strange man was not at the doorway before going in. But there was also another entrance to on the side of the temple. San had delivered the bread through that door once or twice before and wondered if maybe he should go in that way instead.
Whichever way he went in, the basket was probably in the temple’s kitchen. Someone would surely have taken the bread there by now. But if someone caught him going in through the side door, they might think he was up to something and he would get in trouble. He decided to wait until he got there to make up his mind.
When he got near the temple, he left the dirt road. Walking across the rougher desert floor, he made his way to the back of the temple, and then walked along the wall with the side entrance. He would try that door, and if no one was around then maybe he would go in that way.
But when he got to the side door, his heart started pounding. It was dark inside the door, and standing out in the bright sunshine, San couldn’t really see inside at all. Anyone could be in there! No, not this way, he decided. He would use the front door after all. Trying to appear natural, he strode past the side door as if he just happened to be going that way. In case anyone saw.
As he reached the other side of the dark opening, a voice whispered “Psst! Come back!”
San froze for a moment in surprise, then turned back towards the side door. It was hard to be sure, because the person had only whispered, but it had not sounded like an adult’s voice. Nervously, San approached the door, and peeked inside.
It was the girl he had glimpsed earlier, and she had his basket.
“Here,” she whispered, handing it to him.
Grateful and relieved, San took it. “Thank you,” he whispered back. She looked to be about his own age, but she was clearly a nobleman’s daughter. She was dressed in a robe of fine cloth that was very clean.
Still whispering, she said, “I’ve seen you. I see you every day, carrying your basket down the road. No other children ever come here.”
“Oh,” San replied. He wasn’t really sure what to say about that, so he decided just to ask her name.
“Aja,” she said.
“My name is—” San started to say, but the girl turned quickly and vanished back into the temple before he could give her his name. San dared not follow her inside. He took the basket and walked back home.
It was curious. All the way back to the bakery, San wondered why she had helped him. She seemed nice enough, he thought, but she was a noble and he was a peasant so it wasn’t like they could ever be friends.
When San returned, Nasu said “Ah, good, you got the basket. Did you have any trouble?”
“No,” San replied. “It was waiting for me by the door when I got there.”
“Well, good. Maybe you misunderstood, before. Maybe the man hadn’t actually meant for you to leave the basket, too.”
San didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to contradict his father, but he knew he had not misunderstood. The strange man had been very clear, and San was positive the man had been ordering him to leave, immediately. He thought maybe the man didn’t want any peasants in his temple. Maybe he was a new priest. San decided to ask around when he made his afternoon delivery to the statue. He had a few friends there, and sometimes the workers knew things.
Nasu was tending the first batch of loaves, now baking in the hot oven, and mixing dough for the next batch. San’s second delivery of the day was not the fine temple bread, but ordinary peasant bread. The kind eaten by San and everyone he knew: his family, his friends’ families, and the families of all the workers building Khafre’s pyramid, carving the statue, and digging the long causeway, the stone-lined channel being dug between the pyramid and the statue.
“Since you’re back,” said Nasu, “go help your mother until the bread is done.”
San often helped his mother with household chores while the peasant bread was baking. His sister Djera helped too, but she was still young. Besides sweeping the floors there wasn’t very much she was old enough to help with.
San’s mother Sahura was in the room next to the bakery, grinding grain into flour. She spent hours every day, along with several other women who helped her, to grind enough grain to make the flour for the bread Nasu baked. The women knelt, pushing grinding stones back and forth on the surface of their querns, slowly crushing the grain into flour. The querns were taller blocks of hard stone, with a shallow groove in the top of each one. They poured handfuls of grain into the groove, and as the grinding stones moved back and forth flour slowly dribbled out of the groove to be caught in tightly-woven baskets.
San entered the grinding room and said, “Hello Mother. Father sent me to help.”
“Good,” said Sahura. She stopped pushing her grinding stone for a moment and stood up, slowly. Her knees and back were stiff from hours of working at the quern. She gave San a few small coins and sent him to the market to buy some things. San was happy to do this. It was always fun to shop in the market rather than just to walk through it carrying his heavy basket of bread.
San visited the stalls selling dates and dried fish, buying what his mother had asked for. Before returning home he stopped at a particular spot on the road leading through the market. From there he could look down into the valley, all the way to the statue and the temple. So far away, the workers carving the statue looked like little ants crawling all over the lighter colored stone. San liked to watch them working. Sometimes, if the breeze was just right, he could even hear the sound of their chisels cutting into the stone, all the way up at the market.
Under the carvers’ steady chisel blows, the statue was slowly taking shape. San’s friend Qaa, one of the men carving the statue, had told him it was going to be a lion, with the face of Pharaoh Khafre, looking east towards the rising sun. Qaa was old, and had said that the statue would probably not be completed in his lifetime. But he had also said San would live to see it finished, and it would be glorious. Still, Qaa did not mind that he would not see the statue finished. What he was helping to build, he had once said, was as great a legacy as any peasant could hope to leave.
San had grown up with the baking of bread and always knew exactly when the bread would be ready, even if sometimes he stayed out longer than that as he had that morning. Perhaps, he mused, if he had not been late he would have missed that strange man and wouldn’t have had to go back for the basket. But then I wouldn’t have met that girl Aja, either. Still, he decided, it would not do to be late twice in one day so he stopped watching the carvers and returned home with his purchases.
The bread was just coming out of the oven when he got home. He ate a quick lunch of bread and a few dates while waiting for his father to finish filling the basket with the steaming hot bread.
“Off you go,” Nasu said, as he placed the last of the loaves into the basket. San lifted the basket with great effort. These loaves were smaller than the loaves of temple bread, but there were more of them and they stacked more neatly into the basket. If anything, the afternoon’s bread basket was heavier than the morning’s. San walked quickly to the site of the statue. He knew that as soon as he arrived his burden would quickly become much lighter.
The workers saw him coming before he got there. “Bread boy!” they called out. Some who knew his name called out “San!” and some came down from the statue to meet him. Workers’ hands darted into his basket, each grabbing a loaf of bread for their afternoon meal.
When those who had come down to meet him had gotten their bread, San continued on to take the remaining bread to the rest of them. His basket was much lighter now, making it easier to climb up to where the other men worked. The worksite of the statue was a hill of solid stone rising out of the desert floor. The carvers worked from the top of the hill downward. Their work produced endless stone chips and small pebbles which continually rained down from above to accumulate as a gravelly slope leading up the hill. Someday, when the work had proceeded far enough downward, the carvers moving slowly down would meet the gravel as it piled up. Then they would have to carry the gravel away, one basket-full at a time, to expose more stone for carving.
Crude trails meandering all over the work site had formed on the gravel slopes by the action of people walking. San had a particular route he usually followed along these trails. His path took him this way and that around the part of the hill that was slowly becoming the statue’s face so those workers could get their bread. Other boys, whose fathers also had bakeries, delivered bread to the men on the sides and back end of the statue, and still others supplied the needs of the thousands of workers building Pharaoh Khafre’s pyramid.
San considered something. All the men here, carving the statue, all the priests at the temple, all the men like his father, all the men building the pyramid, the artists and scribes who painted murals and carefully chiseled hieroglyphs into the great tombs, all of them worked at the command of Pharaoh Khafre. Every single person here in this valley, and in all of Egypt as far as he knew, worked at the command of the Pharaoh.
San thought about this while carrying the bread. One way or another, not one thing happened except that the Pharaoh wished it. Khafre gave orders to his lieutenants, who gave orders and money to men like his father so they could do their work. Then San’s father gave orders to him, and in this way the Pharaoh’s will—that his carvers be fed—was done. It made him feel proud, important in his own way, to be an instrument of the Pharaoh’s will and part of something so much bigger than himself.
San could not imagine what it must be like to be so powerful as the Pharaoh. It was, he thought, something of a miracle for all these people to conduct their lives according to Khafre’s will. It was proof, San decided, of the Pharaoh’s divinity.
When he found Qaa, carving on a lump of rock he said would eventually be one of the statue’s eyes, San asked “Will you be here later? I want to tell you something.”
“Of course,” Qaa laughed. “Where else would I be?” Qaa took his loaf of bread and San proceeded on his route. Since he had to do it mostly one loaf at a time, delivering bread to the statue took considerably longer than it did at the temple. When he was through he went back to find Qaa.
He told Qaa what he had been thinking, about how everyone works because of the Pharaoh. “Do you think that is right?” he asked. “Do you think it is proof of Pharaoh’s divinity?”
Qaa stopped chiseling for a moment, and rubbed sweat and flecks of rock from his forehead. “Yes, perhaps so,” he said. He smiled at San. “It is a very wise thought, for such a young boy. Perhaps you should ask a priest about it. Perhaps you will grow up to be a priest someday.”
San shook his head. “No. I will work in my father’s bakery. Besides, I am only a peasant!”
“Well, perhaps you can find a way,” Qaa said.
They were both silent for a moment. Talk of priests brought San’s other thought to mind. “Qaa,” he asked, “have you heard about a new man at the temple? A new priest, maybe?”
“I had heard that a new priest might be coming. But that was some weeks ago. Why?”
“Well I think he is here,” San replied. San told him about his encounter with the strange man, about the girl who had given him back the basket, and about his idea that maybe the strange man didn’t want peasants in the temple. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I think everyone should be allowed to worship,” Qaa answered. “Even us peasants. But if I hear anything about this new priest, I will let you know.”